INTERVIEW

Michael Ian Black: "I don’t think of myself as a really funny person"

We talked to the comic about his new earnest persona and podcast and the upcoming "Wet Hot American Summer" sequel

By Anna Silman
Published March 5, 2015 8:45PM (EST)
Michael Ian Black       (AP/John Minchillo)
Michael Ian Black (AP/John Minchillo)

In Michael Ian Black's new Audible interview series, "How To Be Amazing," the prolific writer and comic talks to successful people in all different fields -- from Bob Odenkirk to Nate Silver to Amy Schumer -- and interrogates how they got to where they are today. It's a question that Black himself would surely have an interesting answer to, since he's had one of the more diverse and multifaceted career paths in the industry. An alternative comedy legend rooted in beloved groups like "Stella" and "The State" (alongside his frequent collaborators Michael Showalter and David Wain) Black is also an actor (notably in "Ed" and "Wet Hot American Summer"),  a commentator on VH1's beloved "I love the ...'s" series, and a prolific author, essayist, screenwriter, director, tweeter and podcaster extraordinaire. Suffice to say, there are few comics working today who are as insightful and well-rounded -- and whose brains we would rather pick -- as Michael Ian Black.

We caught up with Black to ask him about his new project, what we can expect from Netflix's forthcoming "Wet Hot American Summer" reboot, and whether chicken or turkey is the funnier word (spoiler: it's turkey).

What is it about hearing how people got to where they are that is so fascinating? 

I think it’s because everybody is always looking for a road map. People just want to know how to move ahead in their own lives and the way people communicate with each other is through stories and taking lessons from what other people have gone through. It’s something really helpful for people, to hopefully have a frank, honest conversation about people’s failures and where they screwed up and what they learned from those experiences as well as where they got lucky and what motivated them and who mentored them and all of that stuff. For me personally, origin stories are always a lot more interesting than the fights that people have once they’re superheroes.

What is your strategy for getting people to open up?

I don’t know that I have a strategy. I’m not experienced enough or devious enough to come up with a strategy. But I find that just having human interactions with people — doing an audio show, just having genuine interest in what somebody has to say and expressing that interest and asking follow up questions and making the conversation feel natural as it can in the circumstances, I think all of that contributes to helping people feel comfortable and like they’re in a safe space. The other thing is I think they know I’m not going to generally ask them about personal things that could be embarrassing. I might ask about professional things that might be embarrassing, but I’m not interested in divorces or drug overdoses. Well, I might be interested in drug overdoses.

Are you focusing mainly on people that you were fans of to begin with?

Not necessarily, no. There’s so many people out there that I don’t know that I would be a fan of if I knew about them. So somebody like Carl Tanner, who’s an opera singer, I didn’t know before, but he’s got a really compelling life story and his story really informs his work, so he was a great find. I’m interviewing a guy tomorrow named John Podhoretz, who’s a conservative columnist for The Post. I’m definitely not a conservative, but what’s interesting to me about him is showing how he arrived at his worldview that’s so different than my worldview.

Wow. Going from Tavi Gevinson to Bob Odenkirk to a conservative columnist — you’ve got a real range there.

Yeah, and that’s the idea. I definitely didn’t want to be focused on entertainers exclusively, or even primarily. Both because you can go to any number of places to get that and also because I feel like there’s so many cool people out there who are under-reported on, somebody like Brian Greene, the theoretical physicist we talked to, and Nate Silver, who gets a lot of attention but I don’t think I’ve ever heard an extended interview with him before — the statistician from fivethirtyeight.com — I just talked to. But then I’m happy to talk to somebody like Amy Schumer or Megan Mullally because they’re fun and interesting people. But the show, like Mark Maron’s, which I love, in the beginning especially it really focused almost exclusively on comedians, and I’m not that interested in talking to people that I already know a lot about. I’d rather talk to people that I don’t know a lot about.

You wrote a book with Meghan McCain a few years ago ["America, You Sexy Bitch: A Love Letter to Freedom"]. It seems like you have a strong interest in hearing different viewpoints and trying to understand ideas you might not necessarily agree with. Why do you think this is something that’s been so important to you?

I guess because politics is definitely similar to religion. Generally, people are born into them and I think there’s too little self examination about personal beliefs and political beliefs, and so for me part of my maturation as a human being was discovering for myself, or trying to discover, what I believed, and part of that was a political problem. So I had to do a lot of research and I had to read a lot and think about a lot of things, and I came to my own belief system. And I’m very interested in having it challenged every step of the way. To me, that’s the only way you get any smarter. If your belief system holds up under that scrutiny, then you can be like, “Ok, I’m on the right track.” If it doesn’t, then you change your mind.

I remember during the interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, you said that "How to be Amazing" was kind of like your play for earnestness -- that you really are trying to have these serious, thoughtful, probing conversations that aren’t glib and aren’t based solely on making jokes. Do you find that as you get older you're trying to steer away from the comedic persona that you're known for?

I wouldn’t say that exactly. I’m happy to be a goofball and I’m happy to do dumb things and I’m happy to make fart jokes, but I do feel like that’s a very small part of how I think about myself and how I think about the world. So yes, I do feel constrained by living so much and so often in the world of comedy and something like this gives me a chance to broaden my world a little bit and push out against those walls. The conversations we have are still pretty light. I do try to make them funny at times. I think there’s value in that. On something like “Fresh Air,” which is really much more objective and straightforward interview questions, whereas I feel totally free to inject my opinion, make jokes, to be more a part of the conversation than just an interlocutor. Which is a long way of saying yes, this is a play. I wasn’t being glib before, this is a play for earnestness for me, because for all the reasons I just said. I don’t think of myself as a really funny person and much of American would agree with that.

And much of America would disagree with that.

Look, much of America has no idea who I am, but of the percentage that does, a fair amount would be like, "yeah you’re not funny at all."

Back to that interview with Bob Odenkirk: You guys were talking about whether there’s value in dissecting comedy and how some people feel like you shouldn’t talk about it and you shouldn’t analyze it, you should just let it be. And you said you don't agree with that at all. 

I agree with my disagreement. I think anything worthwhile should bear the weight of scrutiny. Whether it’s interesting to people is a different question and there’s a difference between two magicians showing each other how to do magic tricks and those magicians performing those magic tricks. At a comedy show, I don’t think I necessarily want to hear a comedian talk about why the joke that he just said is funny, unless that itself is a joke. But in terms of craft and in terms of understanding why something works or doesn’t work, any comedian can say, “I don’t want to talk about that, I don’t think it’s interesting,” but I guarantee they’ve spent hundreds of hours arguing with their friends about what word is funnier, chicken or turkey, or something like that.

Which word is funnier?

Turkey. Chicken is also a funny word, but turkey is funnier.

I guess it depends on context as well.

Not really.

No? Ok.

Turkey will always be funnier than chicken.

Got it. There’s a lot of great podcasts and audio shows happening right now, and you in particular have done a lot with the medium, from “Mike and Tom Eat Snacks” to "Topics." What do you find freeing about this format or what unique potential does it offer?

The great thing about it I think for folks and the reason you see so many of them is because the barrier to entry is so low. Anybody can do this. For a comedian in particular, that’s fantastic. There’s nobody booking you at a comedy club, your audience is dispersed and they can come to you whenever they want and in whatever manner they want and you can show a side of yourself that you might not have an opportunity to show in any other venue and all it costs is the price of a phone or a microphone and email. It’s very, very simple to do at a very basic level so it makes perfect sense to me why there’s so many of them and why they’re so popular. At the same time, when I started this process I was thinking, “Does the world need another one of these fucking shows?” And then I was like, “I don’t really care.” If it’s something I’m interested in then I’m going to do it and either the market will reward that or not. I don’t mean financially, I mean whether there will be a listenership or not, I don’t know, but I have an opportunity to talk to cool people. Why wouldn’t I take that?

I feel like the comedy landscape has changed a lot because of this lowered bar to entry that you describe. Do you think that the sort of surreal comedy you were doing with “Stella” would have more of a chance to survive if it had come out now?

Probably not. I don’t know, I have no idea. I don’t know if our timing was wrong or if we just weren’t good or at least in the eyes of people who watch television. I suspect today it would be viewed as too weird, just like it would be then. It is weird, it’s really weird. It might make more sense on a network like Adult Swim, which didn’t exist then, which sort of celebrates the weirdness in a way that at the time Comedy Central wasn’t really doing. It just might have been a bad fit, the network and us. I happen to think “Stella” is some of the best comedy that I’ve ever done, I really liked it. But I also understand that a lot of people looked at it and said, “I don’t know what the fuck this is, but I don’t like it.”

In a way it’s the same with “Wet Hot American Summer” because at the time people didn’t really understand it and it was poorly received. And yet it’s become such a phenomenon now. Do you think people’s sensibilities have changed in that they might be more open to this sort of more absurd humor?

A little bit. I do think we were slightly ahead of the curve in terms of that kind of sensibility, that really absurdist, almost surreal type of sensibility that I think has gotten a little bit more mainstream over the years. I don’t think we were particularly pioneering anything, I think we were just on the vanguard of something that would have happened anyway.

You once said in an interview that you thought "Wet Hot American Summer" influenced the sort of anarchic tone we would later see in comedies like “Anchorman."

I think that’s true. I would never say that “Wet Hot American Summer” directly influenced it, I have no idea. But I do think that kind of sensibility came out of “Wet Hot American Summer,” whether or not it was influenced by it or whether or not they would have done it anyway, I don’t know. But that’s what I mean. I think there was a lot of people sort of nibbling at the edge to this and then something like “Anchorman” made it to the mainstream. There’s a lot of funny movies that didn’t work in that vein. Something like “Hot Rod,” which is really funny. But I just watched “The Interview,” which I thought was going to be terrible, it got panned by the critics, I thought it was hysterical. It’s just unabashed stupidity. There’s not a lot of that out there right now, which I miss, I really like that stuff.

Where are you in the shooting process on that?

“Wet Hot” just finished shooting, so it’ll be edited and turned around fairly quickly. It comes out in July.

I heard you had to shoot it “Arrested Development” season four-style, with everyone taking turns because of people’s schedules.

Yeah, David Wain, who co-wrote it with Michael Showalter and directed all of it, I think he did a great job of putting together a very complicated jigsaw puzzle because it’s got a lot of well-known people in it who all have very intense schedules and they have to figure out not only how to shoot around their schedules but also how to write it in such a way that you can pop people in and pop people out. I think that probably any given scene in that series when you see it, just two people talking to each other, there’s a fairly good chance that the other person wasn’t there on the day.

I remember reading that the atmosphere while shooting the film was so fun and it felt like camp. Did this shoot have the same lighthearted atmosphere?

It was definitely lighthearted and fun, but it wasn’t the same in terms of we weren’t all stuck together in a camp. We were shooting in L.A. and people were coming and going, we weren’t all there all the time. So it was great to be there and see people when they were there, but we definitely didn’t have the opportunity to hang out as much as we did. I missed that, I think everybody missed that.

Did you and Bradley Cooper get to shoot some scenes together again?

We did.

Will we see the romance rekindled?

You’ll have to watch to see!

It sounds like people were really chomping at the bit to be a part of this project -- both the old cast and a bunch of new additions like Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig. What do you think it is about "Wet Hot American Summer" that inspires such excitement and passion?

I take no credit for this, but I think the movie is very well loved. I think it did become a touchstone for comedy people. It’s a well-loved movie in the comedy community and I think the opportunity to work on it for people was exciting and certainly nobody was doing it for the money. It was like, “This is a cool project, can I be in it?” And the answer was “Yes” to everybody.

Is there any chance we will ever see a "State" movie?

I think a movie is unlikely. The State wants to work together, and we keep talking about it. There just hasn’t been the right opportunity. I think now with something like Netflix or Amazon, it might be possible for us to reboot the series somewhere down the line and do six episodes or ten episodes or something. But it just hasn’t happened, I don’t know why. I guess because nobody’s asked us to do it.

I feel like nowadays, with services like Netflix and Amazon, there are just so many more opportunities for comedies that might never have gotten to air otherwise. Do you think it’s a good time to be a comedian right now?

It’s fantastic. It’s a double edged sword in a certain way. The fragmentation of the media landscape has meant that there’s a lot more opportunities for people to create content. The downside of that is with so many people doing so many things, it’s both hard to break down a path and it’s also harder to survive, harder to make a good living. It’s easier to make a mediocre living and harder to make a good living.

But it’s fun if you can do it.

It’s totally fun and it’s not going anywhere. The appetite for content is inexhaustible and in particular for comedy. People need to laugh and if you can provide that service, that’s valuable.


Anna Silman

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